Adaptive Leadership, Part 2: The Six Behaviors of Adaptive Leaders

Editor’s Note: This is a three-part series on adaptive leadership by NAIS President Donna Orem. View the first post here, and look for the forthcoming post in June. 
Change is a continual process. As we move through it, yesterday’s adaptations become today’s routines. But how do we survive the process unscathed, particularly when many of today’s change initiatives disrupt long-held values, norms, and loyalties, creating conflict? In the first post of this series, I investigated the nature of those adaptive challenges that drive complex change. In this post, we will look at how a community can develop the muscle for adaptation so that it is prepared to thrive through the accelerated pace of change ahead.
In his groundbreaking research on adaptive leadership, Ron Heifetz identified six behaviors that can guide leaders and their communities through adaptive challenges. 
  1. Get on the balcony. Schools are complex systems. Too often, we observe what is happening only through the lens of a particular event and then react to that in isolation. To truly understand the nature of change, leaders need to step back and observe actions and reactions throughout the system. When we observe from this vantage point, we begin to see patterns and recognize how one action is playing out though various structures and within various constituent groups. Observing from the balcony can also give leaders insight into how a school deals with change overall.

    The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, authors Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow suggest this exercise. Write out your mission and then beneath it create two columns. In column one, identify structures that support your mission, and in column two, identify those that impede it. Do the same with culture. Write a description of the culture you seek, and then identify the rituals, norms, and protocols that support it and those that impede it. By drawing your lens back and taking this systemic view, you can identify actions needed to promote the desired change throughout the system and avoid unintended consequences.

  2. Identify the challenge and its root cause. By getting on the balcony, leaders can gain a broader perspective, but they must also drill down to diagnose root causes. At this stage, they can begin to ascertain whether a challenge is technical, adaptive, or both. If a leader senses an adaptive challenge could be at play, an important first step is to diagnose whether any of these archetypes is the driver: 
  • There is a gap between espoused values and behavior: People are saying that they value something, but their behavior demonstrates otherwise. 
  • There is tension because of competing commitments: Has your school committed to making progress on two fronts that people experience as competing with one another? For example, post-pandemic, students may have differing needs. Parents may experience serving these various needs as taking away from the job that they are hiring the school to do for their child. 
  • The elephant in the room is named: There may be a long-standing issue that is now front and center because someone is naming it. This will no doubt bring to the forefront conflicting perspectives on the issue.

    Once the driver is identified—the examples above are some of the most common adaptive challenges—you can begin to explore whose values, beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors would have to change for progress to take place.  ‚Äč
  1. Regulate distress. If your school is facing an adaptive challenge, no doubt your community is experiencing some distress. This is a very tricky stage for the leader. Heifetz and colleagues found that leaders need to correctly balance pacing and tension; that is, they need to be careful not to push people faster than they can tolerate change while also maintaining tension so that the stimulus to change remains. This balance will be different in every community and for different challenges. This is not easy work, and leaders will need to learn to live with a certain amount of frustration and turmoil.

    Getting on the balcony is important in this stage as leaders can more easily observe when their efforts are becoming counterproductive, and a course-correction is called for. If a leader senses progress has stalled or the work is becoming counterproductive, they may want to shift to approaching a technical aspect of the problem first. By doing so, anxiety levels may moderate, paving the way for bigger challenges to be taken on as a community develops the muscle for change.

  2. Maintain disciplined attention. At this stage, leaders begin to tap the power of the people. In any community, people bring differing experiences, values, beliefs, and habits. Research shows that difference is key to learning and innovating, but difference also brings conflict. A school leader needs to bring these differences to the forefront and assist the community in becoming comfortable with conflict as a source of creativity. This is how we become true learning organizations. To assess readiness for this step, leaders should consider administering the learning culture assessment developed by Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, David Garvin, and Francesca Gino. This type of inquiry can be crucial in identifying pre-work that needs to be done to nurture a community spirit that is primed for adaptation.

  3. Give the work back to the people. It can be hard for a leader to relinquish responsibility for finding solutions to community problems. Historically, leaders have been trained to take charge and lead through times of difficulty, but Heifetz and colleagues’ research uncovered that if leaders don’t force themselves to transfer this work to the community, real and long-lasting change won’t occur. In their book, they say that “Adaptive challenges are difficult because their solutions require people to change their ways. …It is not only lonely out there, it is dangerous. Those who see your good work as a threat will find you a much easier target if you are out there by yourself.” Instead, leaders must instill confidence in the community, allowing people to take risks and responsibility, and supporting them when they make mistakes or falter. The core principle to remember here is that if a leader wants to move forward a change initiative at a school, it will require people to adapt, and they must be part of that process. 

  4. Protect voices of leadership from below. Adaptive change is hard, thus, in our zeal to move forward, it can be easy to dismiss dissenting voices. But these voices can be canaries in the coal mine and helpful guides, pointing out challenges ahead or identifying a different path to a solution. Leaders need to manage conflict so that it occurs in a respectful manner, but they need to nurture diverse opinions rather than neutralize them. As Heifetz points out, “Giving a voice to all people is the foundation of an organization that is willing to experiment and learn.” 
Although change is hard, it is how we make progress. As your school builds the muscle to become an adaptive organization, consider these five characteristics of adaptive cultures:
  1. Elephants in the room are named.
  2. Responsibility for the organization’s future is shared.
  3. Independent judgment is expected.
  4. Leadership capacity is developed.
  5. Reflection and continuous learning are institutionalized.
This work doesn’t happen overnight, and it can be particularly hard on school leaders. 

The third and final blog post, to be published next month, will cover how school leaders can take care of themselves and build skills for adaption in the process. 
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.